I was born on November 25, 1946 in Jada, Adamawa State, Nigeria. I was named after my paternal grandfather, Atiku Abdulkadir. It was the practice among the Fulani people to name their first sons after their paternal grandfathers.
My grandfather, Atiku, came originally from Wurno in Sokoto State. There, he had met and befriended Ardo Usman, a Fulani nobleman from what is now known as Adamawa State. My grandfather decided to accompany his new friend back to his home- town of Adamawa.
They settled in Kojoli, a small village in Jada Local Government Council of Adamawa State. My grandfather farmed, kept livestock and raised a family. He married a local girl in Kojoli and gave birth to my father, Garba Atiku Abdulkadir. He was their only child. My father was an itinerant trader who traveled from one market to another selling imitation jewelry, caps, needles, potash, kola nuts and other nick-knacks which he ferried around on the back of his donkey. He also kept some livestock and cultivated guinea corn, maize and groundnuts.
When it was time for him to marry, my father chose a young girl from nearby Jada town whose parents had migrated from Dutse, now the capital of Jigawa State. My mother, Aisha Kande, was born in Jada. Both my father and paternal grandfather were learned men. They gave free Islamic classes to adults and young people in Kojoli during their spare time. As a young boy growing up in Kojoli, my parents doted on me. They tried their best to provide for me and to ensure that I grew up in a wholesome environment of love and spirituality. My father saw me as a rare gift, a child of destiny. My parents tried unsuccessfully to have more children.
GOING TO SCHOOL My father, Garba Atiku Abdulkadir, was fond of me. He wanted me to become an Islamic scholar, herdsman, farmer and trader – just like him. He was a deeply religious man who was suspicious of Western education which he believed could corrupt the impressionable minds of young people. My father did not want me to go to school. He tried to hide me from the prying eyes of Native Authority officials who had embarked on compulsory mass literacy campaign in the region. My father soon discovered that he could not resist the wind of change that was blowing through the area at the time. My mother’s older brother, Kawu Ali who had received a little education through adult literacy classes, registered me at Jada Primary School in January 1954 as Atiku Kojoli. For trying to stop me from going to school, my father was arrested, charged to an Alkali court and fined 10 Shillings. He refused to pay the fine. He said he had no money. He spent a few days in jail until my maternal grandmother, who made local soap for sale in the community, raised the money to pay the fine and father was released to her. But my father was not a happy man. He was sad and angry that his only child had been taken away from him to be exposed to a strange world. He saw Western education as a threat to their cherished values and way of life.
FATHER’S DEATH Three years after I started school, tragedy struck in December 1957. I was then11 years old. I was just about to begin the Senior Primary School in Jada as a boarding pupil. My father drowned while trying to cross a small river known as Mayo Choncha on the outskirts of Toungo, a neighbouring town. The river was in high tide following a heavy rainfall. Father’s body was recovered the following day and buried in Toungo according to Islamic rites. He was less than 40 years old when he died.
I built an Islamic primary school at his burial site years later to immortalize him. He was a simple, hard working, kind, honest and God-fearing man. I miss him a lot. After my father’s death, the task of raising me fell on my mother, Kande, and her childless sister, Azumi, as well as my father’s extended family members in Kojoli. Although people were generally kind and caring towards me, it was difficult for relatives to fill the vacuum left by my father. As such, I was often sad and lonely. Father’s death pained me greatly. I resolved to work hard, remain focused and be successful in life to make my father proud. I was sure that he was somewhere watching over me. I did not want to disappoint him. I wish father had lived long enough to see the benefits of Western education in my life.
KADUNA, KANO & ZARIA After completing my primary school in Jada in 1960, I was admitted into Adamawa Provincial Secondary School in Yola. I joined 59 other young boys from Adamawa and beyond in January 1961 to begin a five-year high school journey. The school’s motto is Tiddo Yo Daddo, a Fulani aphorism for “Endurance is Success”. It reminded us daily that success in life would only come to those who worked hard and persevered. Adamawa Provincial Secondary School, like others in the region, belonged in the second category of post-primary institutions in Northern Nigeria. The most prestigious schools were the Government Colleges in Zaria and Keffi. Pupils who excelled in the entrance examination went to the Government Colleges; those who did reasonably well went to the Provincial Secondary Schools; average students were sent to the Craft Schools in the various Divisions; and those who failed the examination were sent to Farm Centres which were established in all the Districts. It was a good system which took care of everyone irrespective of his or her level of intelligence.
When I was 15, I spent my school holiday at home, working as a clerk in Ganye Native Authority. My boss was Adamu Ciroma, the then District Officer. From my holiday job earnings, I bought a house for my mother in Ganye, the headquarters of the local government council. The thatched mud bungalow had two rooms plus a kitchen and bathroom. It cost me about nine Pounds Sterling. My mother was very happy and proud of me. I had saved her from homelessness after her older brother sold the family house in Jada without her knowledge.
SERVING IN THE CUSTOMS
Before completing my Diploma in Law programme in June 1969, a team from the Federal Civil Service Commission came on a recruitment drive to the university. By chance one of the interviewers found in my file a report that I had once been found suitable to join the police force and had in fact received some training in 1966. This in- formation was brought to the attention of the chairman of the interview panel who promptly ruled. “O.k., you go to the Department of Customs and Excise”. That was how I joined the Department of Customs and Excise in June 1969. The invisible hand that has always shaped my life had once again steered me towards my destiny. After my training at the Police College in Ikeja, Lagos and at the Customs Training School in Ebute Metta in Lagos, I was posted to Idi Iroko border station. My colleagues and I were tasked with collecting duties on imported and exported goods, stop- ping the entry and exit of banned items, and arresting and prosecuting smugglers. I was posted in 1972 to Ikeja Airport in Lagos and later to Apapa ports in Lagos. I saw Customs not as a punitive institution but as a way of making money for government. Instead of seizing goods and extorting money from their owners, I made money for government.
A lot of people tried unsuccessfully to induce me. I was posted to Ibadan mid 1975 and promoted Superintendent of Customs. This was during the memorable days of General Murtala Muhammed, the nation’s new military leader who had electrified the nation with his campaign for discipline, probity, hard work, patriotism and dedication to duty. I admired General Muhammed and tried to promote the same values and attitudinal change in our office. I was nick-named “Murtala Muhammed Junior” by my Customs subordinates in Ibadan because they said I was behaving like him. Although I was second-in-command in Ibadan, I used to order late-comers to be locked out of their offices.
I was sad to hear about General Muhammed’s assassination on February 13, 1976 during a failed military coup. Some of those who were later implicated in the coup and killed were well known to me. But I did not know they were involved in a coup plot. Shortly after that failed coup, I was transferred to Kano in 1976.